Phelps’ rants are free speech

Even the Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral protests should be protected.

Editorial board

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a contentious First Amendment battle between the father of a dead solider and the wayward religious fanatics who protested at his funeral. The protests were vulgar, but for the sake of free speech, the court should protect them.

Fred Phelps and members of his radical Westboro Baptist Church travelled to Maryland in 2006 to protest the funeral of 20-year-old soldier Matthew Snyder, saying, as offensively as possible, that his death was vengeance from God for AmericaâÄôs tolerance toward gays. They also posted diatribes against Snyder on their website. SnyderâÄôs father sued for emotional distress and won in district court. Upon losing in the U.S. Court of Appeals, he went to the Supreme Court, which will now rule in a potentially landmark free speech case.

But it should end up being an easy decision for the justices. The court has long held that ideas cannot be restricted based on their quality alone, even those most offensive to the public. The court has held that “the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.” A wide interpretation of the Constitution would allow even PhelpsâÄô protests âÄî despite their offensive nature âÄî so long as they follow public assembly laws.

Westboro BaptistâÄôs protests are ugly, unpatriotic and unchristian. Any reasonable person should be upset by the views this church holds and what it has done at the somber ceremonies for Americans killed in war. But what they say should be protected by the First Amendment. If itâÄôs not, this most important American principle of free speech will be sacrificed for the soldiers who died in its name.